Maroon - Vanessa Walters

Maroon - Vanessa Walters




            of rich dark red


            to leave someone trapped and isolated in an inaccessible place. esp. an island


            Descendants of Africans in the Americas and Islands of the Indian Ocean who escaped from slavery, through flight or manumission, and formed their own settlements

 To my younger self…

 Your birth certificate lists your name, Vanessa Evelyn Walters, the date Fourth March, 1977, place of birth, Barnet Hospital, Barnet. Your mother, is listed Juliet Anne Walters. Your father is absent.  By virtue of this document, you are British. A national of the United Kingdom. Britain is home. But I must warn you that you are about to be marooned - trapped in this identity but also isolated within it too.

 It begins at home, with your Jamaican parents and grandparents who have memories of gullies they jumped and fruit trees they picked, a separate language and ways of being you will forever be outside of, who laugh at your ‘English’ ways.

 And at school you are the only girl in your class, othered for your brown complexion and thick, tight coils the nit-nurse can’t braid.

 By the time you reach adulthood, you realize you can proclaim your Britishness as loudly as you like but identity is a thing projected onto you by others, whether through documents or actions. And that you’ve spent more time discovering what you are not than what you are. You have found yourself trying to fit into other people’s ideas in order to belong, to make yourself whiter, to change your ways, your accent. You even try to change their ideas about identity and who you are, about who can and can’t be British.

 It’s an idea, right? Nationality, even a country is largely an idea, a figment of the imagination - a shared fiction, a collection of passed down memories.

The island of Jamaica was originally named Xaymaca - meaning land of wood and water, a name much older than Britain and possibly even older than Britiain’s earlier name, Albion, the white land - possibly referring to the white cliffs of Dover. The United Kingdom was born in 1801 with a new idea about what it meant and who and as ideas changed, these new ideas are  also projected onto you. You became marooned within ideas and between old and new ideas. Sometimes the ideas include you, but sometimes they don’t, like the Moors ordered out of England by Queen Elizabeth 1st, the many people born in Britain denied Britishness by the British National Act of 1981, and the people with their Britishness reversed by the 2002 amendment to the British National Act.

Your identity, is a hybrid, shifting, a patchwork quilt with changeable terms and conditions.  It is hard to live in the cracks. It is destablising, uncertain, exhausting. You are exhausted.

 The first time you go to Jamaica, as a teenager, with your grandparents, and you will be called ‘Foreigner’ and fleeced of your British pounds, exoticized as someone else’s idea of opportunity. You will realize even your grandparents, Jamaican passport holders, returning to the island they left as adults, do not quite belong either. They have also fallen through the cracks.

 And the first time you go to Africa, you will realize that the afro- in  Afro-Caribbean is decorative. You do not belong on paper. You do not belong in the ways in which peoples of Africa belong to their places. You have no village, no language, no family name, no tribal marks, no specific facial features.  Africa is not a country, nor is it even the countries on the map. There are a whole new collection of countries like Yoruba Land and Ijaw land. There are peoples without countries and countries that share peoples. You will realize people have ideas about who they are that have nothing to do with borders or passports but more with wood and water and white cliffs and the ones before.

But one day, you will realize, in your lifelong quest for belonging, that there are many ways of belonging and ideas about what we belong to. The thing that maroons you, also liberates you, to reimagine identity and belonging, not just for yourself but for others too. Documents are merely clues, not answers. You will find other people who have made similar journeys of realization to yourself and together you will create spaces you can all belong to in your unbelongingness. Black British is one such space.  You will realize you belong to yourself and identify yourself for yourself.  Like the Maroons of history, who escaped systems of slavery, the ideas you have about yourself, for yourself, will also set you free.

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